Wednesday, 7 April 2010

BLACK SABBATH: Paranoid


(#82: 10 October 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: War Pigs/Paranoid/Planet Caravan/Iron Man/Electric Funeral/Hand Of Doom/Rat Salad/Fairies Wear Boots

If the Moody Blues demonstrated the aspirational goodwill of a certain view of turn-of-the-decade Birmingham, Black Sabbath epitomised the downsizing doom. The Moodies urged their listeners to open their eyes, absorb the light, embrace the world; the Sabs seemed to want to crawl into the furthest, darkest, tiniest, dirtiest corner, curl up into an approximation of foetus and hide from the world forever. Paranoid is the first seventies number one album which I really cannot imagine having been possible to conceive or make in the sixties; most of the group arose from a blues band called Earth but, although tracks such as “Rat Salad” make it clear that they had chops, their technical skills are subservient to the collectiveness of the music and the not quite unalloyed bleakness of their vision.

Listening to the title track of their eponymous debut album from earlier in the year, one could project forward to the early work of another Earth, the Seattle drone band whose apparent initial mission was to slow down the busyness of rock to a near-static crawl. On this “Black Sabbath” the mobility of rock is stunted back towards an ungainly, floor-writhing, fly-dying flailing of limbs, slackened down to the point of anti-apoplexy; dire bells toll, the man-ness of rock with its guts slashed open, stumbling stomach first along the pavement. This, rock and working-class Birmingham seemed to say, is what The Sixties finally did to us.

That first album was as hopeless (in the best sense) as any record arriving at the anti-dawn of the seventies and it had a slow but huge impact; although Record Retailer never placed it higher than #8, it stayed on the chart for over ten months and was one of its year’s top twenty best-sellers. The record sounded as though it had taken four lifetimes to assemble and so came the inevitable difficulty of following it up on the turn of a dime. This the group did by means of developing the eight songs heard here out of jams, either in the studio or while on tour, and while the light of Paranoid rarely shines beyond the negative, the album is noticeably lighter on its feet than its predecessor; the brakes are off, the group interaction is more marked – yet again the mind’s eye sees four men in a studio working and playing together – and Sabbath’s eventual glory far more clearly delineated.

The album was originally intended to be called War Pigs, hence its odd cover of a policeman, seemingly transposed in a time machine from the G20 protests, furiously waving a shield and sword in the darkness; the scariness was strictly provincial. But an anxious Vertigo Records demurred, and needed a single on the record; guitarist Tony Iommi came up with the “Paranoid” riff spontaneously in the studio, the rhythm section joined in, Ozzy Osbourne quickly improvised some words and producer Rodger Bain, sensing potential magic, urged them to get it down on tape.

It could have been more extreme; “War Pigs” was originally entitled “Walpurgis” in honour of the Witches’ Sabbath and in continuation of the occult theme of the first album, and indeed Ozzy has since generally continued to sing the original lyrics when performing the song live. Still, the Vietnam spectre was inescapable, and the song lumbers into motion with a very slow, stumbling blues-rock pattern which soon mutates into a snarling thrash complete with feedback choir. Then come the air raid sirens – twenty-five years after the end of the war from which Britain has never really escaped – and finally Ozzy, likening generals to witches, intoning chimes of burning bodies and war machines. There are unbearable long pauses – are you sure you want to keep listening to this? – between which the song speeds up into something approximating a wrecked Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac with its neutered splinters of power trio blues-rock and slows down again for the Ozzy cortege. “Satan, laughing, spreads his wings” he finally proclaims. “ALL RIGHT NOW!!” he cackles, welcoming the incoming doom and showing Free the firmest of doors.

“Paranoid” the song, in contrast, makes a strange light of its troubles, although it was one of the unlikeliest of top five hit singles, even in this most confused and least settled of all pop years; “Finished with my woman ‘cos she couldn’t help me with my mind” was perhaps the least reassuring opening line of any 1970 hit, but above (or below?) and beyond Ozzy’s fulminating cries lies a streamlining of the notion of “rock” which simultaneously points to the past and the future; Iommi’s guitars are very clean, carefully scrubbed and set to one stereo channel, and neither bass nor drums do anything other than their assigned jobs. From one perspective, with its near-mechanical sequences of guitar static, the song is a clear continuation of Eddie Cochran, although in the desperation of “Summertime Blues,” where The Man booms out at him from every corner like Rover the Prisoner balloon, stopping him from doing anything, there is a certain ineffable swagger and hopefulness to Cochran’s wailing; you know that somehow he’ll get through and overcome all of this adult nonsense, and the almost robotic drum pattern of the tune even indicates a future road towards House and techno (Martin Rev and Alan Vega, as Suicide, would eventually join these dots). Ozzy, however, is in an unrescuable pit, and knows full well that he’s dug it himself, of his own volition. “Can you help me…?” he cries, “…occupy my brain?” Arguably far scarier, because more in our faces, than Peter Green’s still frightening breakdown on “The Green Manalishi,” Osbourne concludes with a parade of trochaic tetrameters (“Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry”) and finally gasps his goodbyes at his dazed audience: “I tell you to enjoy life/I wish I could but it’s too late.” The future perspective, as evinced by the tightness of the rhythm and the cleanliness of the guitar lines, points in the direction of the Ramones; rock drained of its “virtuosity,” the song once again being served by the process rather than vice versa.

“Planet Caravan” finds Sabbath groping towards their distended take on the rock ballad, which would come to full fruition with the subsequent “Changes” and “Laguna Sunrise”; here Ozzy gurgles through a Leslie cabinet as the group travels at less than magnificent speeds around the universe, sounding like the Moodies on a markedly bad trip; on his journey Ozzy sees the moon falling down like tears, and Earth as “a purple blaze” – it should be noted that Paranoid was released on the day Hendrix died, 18 September – “of sapphire haze/In orbit…ALWAYS.” The mood is one of damaged salsa, a comatose Santana, a heavily sedated Happy Sad-era Tim Buckley, the fallout from “Third Stone From The Sun” when all that is seen is not rainbows of crimson but debris from intergalactic garbage dumps.

Then, and finally on side one, materialises The Future: “Iron Man.” It is not really impossible fully to gauge the incalculable influence that this side of music in particular has waged on pretty well everything that came after it in its line, from Van Halen (who early on in their career considered calling themselves Rat Salad) to Metallica and Slayer, from hip hop to contemporary Goth-rock (both Busta Rhymes and Marilyn Manson have covered the song) and, incandescently, on Gen X. The opening, still shocking, electronically distorted growls of voice and guitar lead straight into the invention of the Butthole Surfers; once again, rock stumbling around its bedroom, incontinent, flowing, and that most immense and metallic of all heavy metal riffs – also one of the most patient; you just SIT there or stand petrified until it’s finished spelling the future out to you – comes at you, reacting against Geezer Butler’s Big Dipper bass, Iommi’s two solos being distinctly unshowy, generally slow and measured even as Bill Ward’s drums speed and slow the song as required.

But, above all, there is the now terrifying figure of the class joker, the reject to whom no flowers spoke of peace – in his youth Ozzy briefly served time for breaking and entering into a clothes shop – rejuvenated, dehumanised, out to wreak revenge on everyone who had ever laughed at or rejected him. “VENGEANCE FROM THE GRAVE!” he roars, joyfully. “KILLS THE PEOPLE HE ONCE SAVED!” Everyone runs as far away from him as they can, just as they used to in the old days, but his new confidence has jacked up their fears. Like the Misunderstood in 1966, he could have taken them to the sun – this Iron Man appears to have SEEN the sun and been irrevocably damaged by his wider experiences of time and the universe – but they didn’t want to go and pushed him back into his steel box. He rises up, resurrected, and they can’t take it, and he is revelling in it. His metallic KO, he knows, is already the real future.

“Electric Funeral” opens side two and is as slow and ungainly as anything we’ve previously heard, though its central elements are sharper than any razor; the false world of “plastic flowers” and “melting sun” – and the moon again falls, but this time fatally – is rotting, burning, and ringmaster Ozzy is our guide to the destruction. Where does this crawl come from? Blue Cheer with a touch of Arthur Brown (but where are the guitars on “Fire”?)? Five months later Lennon would croon controversially about the dream being over but already Ozzy is telling us that the game is up, and moreover, he is enjoying it. “Evil souls fall to HELL!” he howls. “Ever trapped in burning CE-HELLS-AHH!!” he chortles. Meanwhile Bill Ward goes all Tony Williams with his astringent snare rolls and guess the next subdivision sideways rhythm lines.

“Hand Of Doom” is I believe the first song in this tale to namecheck Vietnam directly (“First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm”) and it stares down the barrel of the junkie GI as pitilessly as Paul Revere’s “Kicks” had done in a slightly different age; Ozzy watches patiently as the victim injects himself towards oblivion. Again there’s the quiet verse-loud chorus seesaw, Iommi’s guitar reaching up to the agonised for the first chorus, Ward’s drums magisterial on the second chorus. Then the song revs up towards a bluesy swagger, Iommi’s solo backed by a stomping rhythm straight out of Sly’s “Dance To The Music”; this abruptly gives way to Butler’s careful, policing bass riff, Ward patient on brushes and rimshots before the song builds up to its penultimate chorus, where guitar and drums are equally prominent, following which Ozzy stares down at the protagonist: “Price of life, you cry/Now you’re gonna DIE!!” Butler’s bass creeps out of the song and the room as though there was something in there that it didn’t want to see.

“Rat Salad” is a straight instrumental interlude, and mainly a feature for Ward’s fairly out-there drumming, although there are some Iommi-led trio passages which could practically pass as John McLaughlin jamming with Tony Williams’ Lifetime. This leads into the closing “Fairies Wear Boots” – the Moodies could never have thought of that – which, following its filtered-in intro (credited on some editions of the album as a separate track, “Jack The Stripper”; the coda to “War Pigs” is also sometimes listed as “Luke’s Wall”), lumbers into the standard Sabbath wrestling template with a “Black Night”-style shuffle, Ward’s drums again expert in their sense of displacement as Ozzy narrates a shaggy dog story of seeing the titular protagonists (skinheads on acid and/or cheap cider) while out of his head; he goes to the doctor who frankly tells him, in what are almost the album’s closing sentiments, “Son, son, you’ve gone too far/’Cos smokin’ and trippin’ is all you do.” Still Ozzy is unflappable – hear his “WELL ALLLL RIGHT NOW!!!” midway through – and Iommi’s solo, treated in its first half, comes from no immediately identifiable precursor. The song slows down briefly before returning for a final lap of honour rave-up; Ozzy, generally sounding like Tweety Pie (“I Taut I Taw Faiwies In Boots”?), responds to the doctor with an extended “YEEEEAAAAHHHHH!!” – he probably couldn’t think of a fourth line but in reality didn’t need to; his point has already been fully made. The song and the record end with tick-tock drums, two-note octave bass (Pink Floyd? Here??) and Iommi’s guitar loops echoing out into the chasms of an ill-defined tomorrow. In summary it is not so much a case of Sabbath crawling into a corner and curling up, licking its own wounds, but poking their noses and fingers into that curious little alcove at the back of the wall, there, do you see it, and somewhere beyond that is a way to…something else, and maybe something better, something which the placid world of 1970 could not conveniently contained. They know that the specks of dust which constitute the future are merely waiting there for form and purpose, including those belonging to Ozzy Osbourne, the man who in 1970 wailed abjectly about his inability to love and who would, after several rapidly-enfolding variants of hell, become perhaps the most famous family man in rock. The things that make true happiness – he was blind, but now can see.

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